I saw hope on the streets of Baltimore

Carlos, Carla, Edward, and Kishaun Thompson.

BALTIMORE — A toddler, playing on the steps of a row house next to the CVS that had been burned the day before, tumbled to the ground and began to cry. I picked him up and handed him back to his mother, who was seated at the top of the steps. Once in her arms, I made a funny face at him, and he began to giggle. Then I poked his belly and he laughed even harder, the tumble a distant memory.

It was a refreshingly honest moment in the middle of the surreal scene around us. I’d been walking towards Pennsylvania Avenue and West North, the locus for media and protesters coalescing in this city: full of drumming and flyer-ing, a white guy on a bullhorn ranting about Jesus, and, of course, the media. Directly behind me, a row of television vans. Ten paces ahead were close to a dozen cameramen wielding their giant machines, anchors in the street chatting with interviewees. So I sat with the Thompson family for a bit on their stoop, a respite.

“What about the people who live here? Don’t [the media] want to hear from us?” Carla Thompson asked.

“We tried to move away from the animosity, but we moved right to it,” said Edward Thompson, Carla’s husband, of the recent unrest in his (literal) backyard. The family came to West Baltimore just two months ago from Washington D.C. looking for a better life, a safer life. But now they’re not so sure. Carla recalled the day before: “It was nothing but teenage kids,” she said of those who damaged a few establishments in the area on Monday. “We’re the only house on this block, all the rest are boarded up. Our whole thing was, ‘we’re next.’” She shut their doors and they waited it out.

The looting was a culmination of a 10 day-long holding pattern Baltimore city residents have been in since 25 year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody with a crushed voice box and severely damaged spine. “I agree with the protests,” said Carla. “But to tear up a city where you live, shop, work…” That was something she couldn’t comprehend.

But other Baltimore residents do understand. “I can’t even really call them looters. They’re uprisers,” said D. Watkins, a professor at Coppin State University and native son of Baltimore who wrote about his experience growing up harassed by the police for New York Times. “Non-violent protest doesn’t really work in America, especially when police do nothing but implement violence,” he said.

A fresh-faced senior from Morgan State University who calls himself “The Keenan System” sees himself in the young protestors, who he called “misled.”

“I’m a product of Baltimore City streets,” he said. “I done been through foster care, I done been without my parents, I done been homeless at a very young age. So I know and I understand. It would have been me out there.” And though he doesn’t agree with the destruction, he added: “I refuse to condemn them, because that could have been me.”

Keenan was on Pennsylvania Avenue when the looting started on Monday afternoon. After a rumor circulated on social media that people were planning on looting the area, Keenan and his friends showed up to defuse the situation. “The police didn’t come to help. They came already armored and ready to destruct,” he said. “They were agitating these kids.” Keenan blames the heavy police presence for the worst of the violence. “You’re going to get agitated,” he explained. “Your rage is going to be expressed on so many different levels. Levels the whole world doesn’t understand, or America may not understand.”

In response to the rage, Keenan and his friends organized a peaceful, day-long antidote to the lingering stench of burning pharmacy items over on Pennsylvania Avenue. They called it #Ilovebaltimore, and I never would have known about it had they not marched by Pennsylvania Avenue on Tuesday chanting the slogan. I walked alongside them until we ended up at a basketball court just three blocks down. Baltimore residents were barbecuing, eating, and talking. Organizers took to the megaphone to encourage everyone to get inside by 8:30 pm, a full hour and a half before the city’s mandated 10:00 pm curfew. The young people I talked to were not optimistic about the likelihood that any of the six police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death will see the inside of a prison, but were intent upon keeping the community whole.

“What is working? You got the peaceful protests, you got the violent protests. What is working? These kids are still getting killed every day,” said life-long Baltimorean, Anthony Cooper. I asked him what will be needed to restore peace. “Some type of answer,” he said. “It seems like [the police] are just protected by their shield.”

Yes, they are. But I do think something is working. I saw 30 or so black men from the community linking arms in front of the police line for hours. I saw an older woman hold a sign that read “go home” as curfew loomed. I witnessed the beautiful scene at #ilovebaltimore gathering. And yes, I encountered angry kids who felt the only way they could be heard is by burning shit to the ground. But all the people I spoke to had one resounding demand: things in Baltimore have to change.